The Trouble with Mayors

Alex Klaushofer
9 min readFeb 19, 2024

For most of my life I’ve held what you could call a child’s view of mayors. The mayor first entered my consciousness through the children’s television programme Trumpton as a benign local dignitary who might open a fete or make a speech to commemorate an event in the life of the community. In the above photo the mayor is accepting a birthday gift from the people of Trumpton. Knowing his great love for the town, they thought he might like a picture of the town hall which, in this episode, has been elevated to the municipal balcony by the fire brigade.

It is all so beautifully unified and harmonious: the people love the mayor because, as a figurehead playing an important symbolic role, he represents them, is of them. In a sense, people and mayor are one, united by their shared love of place and sense of belonging to a community. How I loved Trumpton.

This month’s essay is about the journey from innocence to realism I’ve undergone with regard to mayors. It’s one that exemplifies a wider journey of understanding about democracy and what is required if it is to fulfil its promise of popular self-government. It’s a journey that many of us have been on in recent years and are still on. It’s one that involves moving from an unquestioning acceptance of things as they are to a more practical understanding of how humans organise themselves and ultimately a recognition of some harsh realities about the workings of power.

Only in the last year have mayors fully entered my consciousness as I’ve realised that they have acquired the power to change my life quite radically, and not for the better.

In London, the campaign for the election of the next mayor on May 2nd is well underway and the expansion of Ultra Low Emissions Zone is a key issue. I was born in London and currently live in the same area as my great-grandparents. Seeing the yellow cameras go up in the streets around me has elicited a strange mix of emotions — sadness, anger and a little fear — about a policy that is ushering in a new world of surveillance. A camera and a ULEZ sign stands right outside my grandfather’s house; I wonder how my Edwardian and Victorian forebears would have felt.

Outside my own house is the vehicle I bought on returning to Britain. It is newer than I needed and cost more than I could afford, but neither paying a hefty charge every time I used it nor renting a garage on the other side of the M25 seemed practical. So I made the decision to find the extra money for a ‘compliant’ vehicle on the clear internal understanding that, in the unlikely event I could afford to upgrade when the next set of requirements came in, I would not buy another new car in order to oblige the authorities. Instead, I would leave the city if I hadn’t already and started to prepare myself psychologically for this.

What happens in the capital often sets a template for other cities. Having grown up in the West country, I’d like to move to Bristol. But the mayor of Bristol has been up to all sorts, and now I’m not sure how — to use a much-abused word — liveable the city is going to be.

The rise of the mayor

The changing fortunes of Britain’s mayors came into my purview as a journalist covering public services in the early 2000s. To be honest, even with my pointiest policy nerd head on, I was always slightly bored by the mayors thing. But the information in this section is relevant to what follows, so bear with me.

It’s important to understand that I’m not talking about town or lord mayors, who tend to have ceremonial duties and chains of office but not much power. The subject in question is the elected mayors who entered Britain’s political system at the turn of the millennium on a wave of devolution. A New Labour government was splashing the cash on public services (relatively speaking) and the national mood was one of optimism. We were playing with our democracy in the belief that it was basically working well but we were now going to improve it by devolving power to the people and trying new models of governance.

In local government, subject to a successful referendum, a new mayoral system could replace council leader and cabinet system. Accordingly, the good people of Hartlepool elected a man in a monkey suit and Stuart Drummond, an independent candidate, became the executive mayor of Hartlepool Borough Council in 2002. A decade later, following the Localism Act, referendums were held in ten English cities to decide whether to change to the mayoral system. Only one — Bristol — voted to have a mayor.

Once the public had tasted the mayoral system, it did not seem to like it. In 2012, Hartlepool voted to abolish the post and the monkey-mayor, having served three terms, was gone. A decade later, Bristol’s ‘Scrap the Mayor’ campaign resulted in the decision to revert to a traditional system committee system, ending the term of the current mayor Marvin Rees in May. In 2023, only 14 out of 317 local authorities in England had elected mayors.

Meanwhile, metro mayors were on the rise. They are central to the running of combined authorities — legal entities enabling two or more councils to work together which are able to get increased funding and power in areas such as transport and planning from central and local government. Currently, there are ten combined authorities, nine of which have a directly elected mayor. While government doesn’t make the mayoral system a requirement for combined authorities, those which do have mayors tend to get the best devolution deals. If you include Greater London, 41 percent of England’s population now lives in an area with some form of mayoral governance.

England’s first directly elected mayor was Ken Livingstone who became Mayor of London in 2000, followed by one Boris Johnson in 2008. London’s current mayor, Sadiq Khan, was elected in 2016 and won a second term in 2021. He has a budget of £17 billion. His role involves overseeing transport — he is chair of Transport for London — and includes some powers over the roads, with strategic oversight over the police and fire brigade. The London mayoralty has gained further powers in housing and planning since its establishment.

Central government seems has a distinct appetite for mayors. In 2022, the government promised that ‘every part of England that wants one’ would have a devolution deal by 2030, with the Levelling Up legislation committing it to extending devolution across England. It favours the mayoral model, with the highest level of devolved powers given to areas with a single institution and a directly elected mayor.

Labour has promised that it will continue to foster devolution, and then some, if it wins the next election. Leader Keir Starmer told last year’s party conference that a Labour government would bring about ‘the biggest expansion of devolution since Labour was last in power’, giving combined authorities additional control over housing, planning, skills, transport and energy.

Despite their lack of popularity with the people, mayors are becoming very powerful!

Let’s look a bit deeper at what modern mayors are doing with their new-found power.

A Tale of Two Mayors

In this section, I’m going to take a look at what two of my (least) favourite mayors have done in London and Bristol. Please understand that I’m not attempting to provide a comprehensive overview of their activities but rather a citizen’s account of how their preferences are most affecting me, and potentially every citizen. Because of my historic lack of interest in mayors, you could say I’m Alex Public, not that bothered about what mayors do until their policies land on my doormat in the form of charges and fines.

First, the London mayor. The mayor has had the power to introduce ‘road user charging’ across Greater London since 1999 and successive occupants of City Hall have certainly made the most of it. Livingstone introduced the congestion charge in 2003 and a Low Emissions Zone in 2008. The Ultra Low Emission Zone was approved under Boris Johnson, with the support of prime minister David Cameron. Sadiq Khan implemented ULEZ a year earlier than planned in 2019, expanded it to the north and south circular roads in 2021 and to the whole of Greater London in 2023.

ULEZ rules are based on standards issued by the European Union, with the latest being Euro 6. Euro 7 will be introduced in 2025. It’s unclear whether the new standard will apply to London.

Londoners were generally accepting of road charging schemes until the latest ULEZ expansion which covers an area of up to the M25 to the north of the capital and villages to the south. The expansion has been subject to legal challenges by a number of councils and Khan has been accused of manipulating the data used to justify the scheme and skewing the results of the public consultation. The Advertising Standards Authority recently ruled that adverts by Transport for London misled the public about the benefits of ULEZ.

But the money is rolling in — the ULEZ expansion generated £26 million in its first month — and so are the stories about the human costs. They include tales of bailiffs turning up outside people’s houses to collect the fines that double at alarming rates, and penalty notices being wrongly sent to exempt drivers. The more dramatic stories don’t cover the legions of people, especially in poorer suburban areas, sitting at home because they can no longer afford to do simple things such as visit relatives who don’t live near public transport or pick up some heavy shopping by car. The streets of London are quieter, and every month I see more and more empty shops and closed-down eateries. There are doubtless many reasons for this, but limits on public mobility must be a factor.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of EU citizens have been wrongly fined — one French driver £25000 — for driving in London. They’re a result of what a Belgium MP has called ‘the biggest data and privacy breach in EU history’ in which the debt collection agency contracted by TFL has unlawfully shared information about drivers in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain. And now a group of lorry firms in the Netherlands are bringing a legal challenge against Euro Parking Collection for issuing unlawful fines.

Oh dear. A mayor is supposed to act as ambassador, a figurehead that creates a nice warm feeling about their city and improves its standing in the world. Instead, Khan is pissing off our continental neighbours and damaging the capital’s tourist industry.

Khan has repeatedly denied claims that he is secretly planning an even more lucrative road charging scheme: pay-per-mile. A recent investigation by the Telegraph found that 157 staff members at TFL are working on Project Detroit, a new technology platform which would enable ‘other forms of charging based on distance, vehicle type, etc’ to be imposed ‘if a decision was made in future’.

Pay-per-mile, with its comprehensive surveillance infrastructure and the level of control over people’s movements it gives to the authorities is so controversial that it’s often dismissed as ‘something that couldn’t possibly happen’. But as Laura Dodsworth points out, it’s an obvious goal for Mayor Khan:

‘There are three reasons you should have seen this coming. First, he’s very clear about his ultimate goals. He has been so clear, he might as well have drawn you a map and put road signs up. Second, the process of changing our relationship with the private car is well underway; it is death by a thousand cuts, a foot in the door or, as the nudgers know it, ‘radical incrementalism’ … Third, our entire way of life and national identity is altering, not just private car ownership, everything.’

I have to confess that until I understood that Britain was in the grasp of a new, anti-mobility ideology, I did *not* see this coming. Partly it’s because I struggle with the electorate’s tolerance of bad character. I interviewed Khan early on in his career and was subsequently surprised at his rise through the political system. He was bizarrely unpersonable, responding to questions with a kind of New Labour word salad and walking off without the usual courtesies. These days, in a city that’s increasingly run-down and divided by ULEZ, it’s hard to over-state how unpopular Khan is. Since returning to London, I haven’t heard a good word about him. The mere thought of him tends to elicit a ‘yuk’ response from Londoners.

Yet according to the polls, Khan is set to win a third term as mayor, either by a narrow or a wide margin. How can we account for that? My working explanation has something to do ‘the ideology crowd’ who tend to vote along tribal lines and have either very strong convictions or a feeling there is no alternative. The result is that unpopular politicians get re-elected and use their accumulated power to steam-roller in divisive policies.

This is the first half of a deep dive into the rise of Britain’s mayors and the well-funded network supporting their policy aspirations. You can find the full piece on Substack at Ways of Seeing.